This month’s theme for the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy was Recommended Reads. And so I finally, finally, read a book that has been recommended, both in general and to me personally, by almost everyone I know in Romanceland: Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea.
So many people know this book that I’m not bothering with a proper review. If you chance to be someone who didn’t recommend this book to me and haven’t read it, here’s Sunita’s review. And here are my scattered thoughts:
I think I’ve learned how the TBR Challenge will work for me: not cleaning out the dregs, but getting to those books I really want to read but have somehow been hesitating to start. I think I hesitated with this one because “everyone” loves it so. What if I didn’t? I was afraid to tell anyone what book I’d chosen. I liked it a lot; I can imagine reading it again; I look forward to reading more from Kearsley. But it’s not my new favorite book ever.
Things I Liked:
- The Scottish setting, beautifully described. The light touch with dialect–enough to give a flavor, but not overwhelming. The evocation of setting is where I think Kearsley really earns the comparisons to Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier. Plus there is something kind of old-fashioned feeling about her story-telling, and I mean that as a compliment. I’m not sure I can explain it: I guess because it’s a very good story, very well written and told. It’s not that easy to find books that feel this solid in terms of their craft.
- The deft balance between the contemporary plot and the historical one. The historical story is intense–political intrigue, a seemingly doomed romance, threats of various kinds. The contemporary plot, about the writer researching this history, sharing her ancestor’s memories of it, and creating her novel out of that history and memory, is much quieter. Kearsley uses the narrative of Carrie’s research and her conversations with various people about the past to convey a lot of the historical context, so it doesn’t have to slow down her historical plot, which is almost all high notes. The interweaving keeps that from being too intense.
- The reflections on the writing process. Part of Carrie’s book comes from meticulous historical research, part from what she gradually comes to believe are her ancestor Sophia’s memories. This worked best for me when I thought of it as a metaphor for the un- or sub-conscious parts of writing, where something seems to write through you, which I have experienced even writing academic papers. I liked the way Carrie semi-consciously uses and reworks parts of people she knows or incidents in her life in her novel. It’s much less developed than the way Jenny works out personal conflicts through the soap opera she’s writing in Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again, but reminded me a bit of that.
- Really strong characterization. These people felt real to me, both their strengths and their flaws. I cared about what happened to them all.
- Nice use of imagery, like the chess game and the way Sophia’s chess-playing reflects her real-life concern for “pawns.”
Why I Didn’t Adore It:
- Possibly I just wasn’t in the right mood. I was a bit scattered last week and I found it slow to get into and sometimes hard to concentrate on (though at others I was gripped).
- The biggest stumbling block was that it seemed a little too tidily patterned to me. Sometimes I felt I could see the gears turning and wasn’t caught up in the illusion. I guessed how the historical plot would work out very early on–though I don’t think that’s a real weakness because I still found it suspenseful. Possibly any dual timeline plot like this would suffer for me in comparison with A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which is doing very different things from this book, so that comparison isn’t fair.
- I just couldn’t buy the idea of genetic memory: “Well, memory’s complicated, and genes are complicated, so maybe you could have your ancestor’s memories.” I would have found it easier to suspend disbelief in a straight-up “she’s got The Sight” explanation, though I was also grateful to Kearsley for not going with that Celtic Character Cliché. (I’m contrary like that).
Now that I’ve broken the barrier, I think I’ll be free to just relax and enjoy the next Kearsley book I read. Fortunately, I have three more in my TBR.